When Ra Ra Riot lost their original drummer, 23 year old John Pike, to an accidental drowning back in June of '07, somehow, the band picked up the emotional pieces and mustered enough strength to forge ahead. Not too long after the accident, the band was back on the road, following their spunky, collegiate brand of indie pop wherever it could take them...so quickly in fact, one might forgive anyone who presumed Pike's passing hadn't quite sunk in. But on their brilliantly crafted debut disc The Rhumb Line, any doubts concerning how these co-eds coped with such an ultimate loss, are quickly invalidated. Pike's death must have ripped them apart, making The Rhumb Line (Barsuk) a very touching tribute to a legacy snuffed painfully too short.
Once best described as a rag tag group of carefree collegiate rockers, opener "Ghost Under Rocks" paints an immediate melancholy tone. Swells of morose string work accompany a chorus of hushed, yet dramatic vocal coos. Singer Wesley Miles, a pitchy, likeable vocalist in the flesh, is surprisingly subdued as well. Of course thats generally how bands deal with issues of life and death when they tackle them within their songwriting. Daydreaming as if to relate to a state of being (or non-being rather) which he couldnt possibly understand, Miles imagines..."a place where homes are built on frames. And where they plant bulbs along our graves each year with the fall." On the eerily titled "Dying is Fine", he later declares "Dying is fine, but maybe I wouldnt like death if death were goodnot even if death were good." Tack swelling musicianship that recalls some of Arcade Fire's grander moments on as well, and Ra Ra Riot sound emotionally vulnerable.
If all this gets you down though, the band still pack plenty of pleasantries into the record. "Can You Tell" and "Oh, La", at times match Vampire Weekend stroke for stroke in the chamber pop department. Then there is "Too Too Too Fast"...the bands best 80s impression. A kicking drum intro, a wash of cool synths, and vocals stuttering along like some adolescent version of David Byrne; its a spiffy track that longs to lodge itself in the listener's memory. Plus, Miles tendency to let his melodies ebb and flow freely on "Dying is Fine" and "Suspended in Gaffa" is certainly adventurous as well.
But, when it's all said and done, the heavy heart that weights down much of The Rhumb Line is what's ultimately most memorable. Not only that, it also seems to authenticate a brand of indie pop that is sometimes rightfully accused of sounding too cute, quaint, and precious. Just dont take such a statement the wrong way. Ra Ra Riot is not a mediocre band turned consequential on the basis of a tragedy. They were always good. But perhaps the band's "youth gone wild in all the right ways" kind of sound was forced to evolve. Perhaps Ra Ra Riot was forced to find something that is ultimately greater...for themselves, for Pike's legacy...in their music. - david pitz